Before Greece erupted into riots against austerity measures, before the sit-ins that convulsed public squares across Spain, long before 2011′s tumultuous protests against world financial systems began “kicking off everywhere," things had long since kicked off in Argentina. The 2001 protests that gripped the country during its madcap financial crisis offered a sort of preview of what was to come to Europe and — to a lesser, tamer extent — North America, ten years later. So, too, many writers have claimed, did it appear to offer lessons for the future of crisis-battered debtor nations.
The paint-splattered walls of central Buenos Aires, at least, still seem alive with the spirit of the dramatic standoffs that convulsed the Argentine capital over a decade ago, when they famously forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, by helicopter. In the streets that border and radiate from the Plaza de Mayo, the country’s nexus of power, graffiti suffused with the economic themes that resonated in 2001 continues, after regular rounds of angry demonstrations, to climb the walls of even the most stately banks and government office buildings. Not even the Cabildo, a historic landmark that was the center of colonial government in the city, is spared; its freshly-restored facade is one of protest graffiti artists’ favorite targets.
Long after still-frequent demonstrations recede, the remaining graffiti renders the heart of the city redolent with palpable, present anger. The visual contrasts — incensed slogans set against the neighborhood’s slickly-suited crowds of commuters and imperious, alabaster edifices — suggest something akin to Occupy Wall Street, but the effect, particularly in its semipermanence, is far more intimidating than anything recent New York protests managed to muster. It’s as if militant slogans only slightly less charged than those that have crawled onto facades of cities linked to the uprisings of the Arab Spring had suddenly appeared in an environment that looks more like Washington or Whitehall.
The aesthetic similarities between Buenos Aires’ graffiti and the street art of more recent global protest movements are clear. Whether the political changes occasioned by Argentina’s 2001 protests offer debtor nations serious lessons — or much hope — is another question. When commentators cite Argentina’s example, they’re usually referring to the defiant stance taken by Néstor Kirchner, the late and former president, who earned popularity and political staying power by dramatically devaluing the country’s currency (to promote exports) while defaulting on Argentina’s debts in the face of ongoing pressure from the international financial community to commit to debt-reducing budget cuts.
Financial markets punished the country for the decision; overnight, it became a villain to creditors everywhere (and still can’t seem to get any good press in The Economist). Argentina seemed as if it would be forced to shop for a new economic paradigm. The result was quite a bit of speculation about where things might lead — particularly as factories threatened with shutdowns were occupied by their workers, who continued to operate them in defiance of owners, and neighborhood councils formed to debate the shape a new politics might take. In time, though, these efforts dissipated — though it’s hard to say whether it was because the country stabilized, or because many of the occupied factories or councils simply weren’t sustainable ventures (a paper on the topic blames both factors, among others).
What’s not in question is that these events, sociologically interesting as they may be, played little role in bringing Argentina back from the brink. Credit for that achievement belongs more to a spike in global demand for commodities — a product of explosive growth in China. That’s not an option available to many resource-poor countries, like Greece, nor is Kirchner’s policy of devaluation possible for nations tied to strong currencies like the Euro.
Argentina’s recovery may not last, in any case; its fortuitous boom is showing signs of slackening. Recent sabre-rattling by the current government (headed by Cristina Fernández, Kirchner’s wife) over the Falkland Islands — the war over which Argentina and Britain will remember the thirtieth anniversary of this year — seems to be a naked attempt to distract Argentines from economic woes (or else a negotiating tactic meant to boost Argentina’s right to the islands’ supposedly copious reserves of oil).
The country has visited these crossroads before. Kirchnerism was hardly a novel economic medicine for an ailing Argentina. Its go-it-alone economic philosophy is comparable to the autarkic statism the country practiced for much of the mid-20th century — often popular, but rarely effective unless the country possessed something the world needed enough to endure the high transaction costs of trading with the country or financing ventures there. More ominously, Cristina Fernández’s rhetoric on the Falklands echoes that of the military junta that ruled the country in the 1970s and early 80s, when Argentina was plagued by similar economic uncertainty — talk that pulled the country into an unncessary war.
The nature of power is cyclical, particularly when new leaders encounter old problems. Demonstrations by veterans and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers heartbroken by the politically-motivated “disappearances” of their sons, helped mobilize public opinion enough against the scourge of military government to put civilian leaders back in power. The 2001 protests helped destabilize administrations committed to the neoliberal dictates of the global financial system. New hints of dissent have crept in to more recent graffiti lining the square, which have otherwise focused more closely on specific policies than Fernández’s tenure itself. Still, her administration hardly seems in any serious danger; beyond the sympathy she enjoys following her husband’s untimely death, which helped propel her re-election, it’s unclear any replacement could fare better with the cards the country has been dealt.
It’s for similar reasons that neither the Argentina that took shape after the 2001 protests nor the country that emerged after the dictatorship that ended in 1983 was a land fully rebaptized. Governments are overthrown, or sometimes evolve, but only very rarely change in truly fundamental ways. Argentina’s example may prove as deceptive as it’s seemed, in this rather gloomy moment for states in similar situations, encouraging. The graffiti surrounding the Plaza de Mayo grants a superficial gloss to the conceit that its people were really able to shape their destiny — and that they may be poised to do so again. In truth, their ability to steer the ship of state has often turned out to be as limited as the duration spraypaint sticks, fading, on stone.
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